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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Gamechanger: Seriously Funny Philippe Gaulier

Philippe Gaulier is one of the world's foremost teachers of clown and its inverse, the bouffon. Author of The Tormentor, he has taught Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Roberto Benigni, Simon Amstell and Complicite's Simon McBurney. I was fortunate enough to study with Mssr. Gaulier last summer, and had the chance to speak with him by Skype on the eve of his first workshop in Los Angeles.


It's good to see you!

Did you see me?!

(Laughs) I sent you a couple of students. I hope you have fun with them!

Not boring?

A little boring... but maybe you help them be not boring!

Ah! Ya-ya-ya! (Laughs)   

I have questions —

Yeah, but it's normal for an interview... If you don't have questions, eh... it's a bit strange!

How did you start to be interested in being an actor or a clown? 

First, I wanted to travel.  That's it.  I did not want to do any job.  I wanted to travel or I wanted to be in the commercial navy — but not military, because I don't like military people... One day, I went to a theatre which was also a school [École Charles Dullin*] in Paris. It was a really great theatre and I thought, It is beautiful, so I did this school. And I was actor. I started when I was 17, 18; for ten years I was actor.  And after, I decided to stop and to do Lecoq school*.  In Lecoq school, everybody said I am really funny and I started to be clown with my friend Pierre Byland. And we were clowns ten years. We played a show and broke 200 plates every night. It was very funny. Voila.

*École Charles Dullin's counted among its students Antonin Artaud, Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau. Julie Taymor, Isla Fisher and Geoffrey Rush were among the many pupils of Jacques Lecoq at L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq.

When did you start to teach?

Lecoq asked me to teach. By me, I didn't want to teach because I don't like teachers.  But I accepted, and after, people they say, Ah, but you are a good teacher. So...

What do you think is the most valuable thing that Mssr. Lecoq taught you? 

Lecoq was a great, great teacher, and the first year, anytime I wanted to do an exercise, he say, Not you, Gaulier, stay sitting! (Laughs) He was tough like this, but he was waiting for me... he knew, You are not yet on the level of my idea about theatre, but it was good... And after second year, I was good (not with Greek tragedy, because I was always ridiculous with Greek tragedy) but with games, with mask, with commedia dell'arte, with clown. I was an actor. 

When you teach, Monsieur, your teaching is different than Lecoq's?  You have a big philosophical difference? 

Lecoq was a... serious teacher. Oui, serious. Boring not... but serious. Alors, serious... is it boring when someone is serious? Or is he serious because he is a bit boring?  I don't know!  But he was serious... Lecoq, he asked me to teach, The Style of Lecoq, and always I say that this style was a piece of shit, I won't teach this horrible shit! (Laughs) Every student who did Lecoq, we recognized, you know? We saw a show and we say, Ah, but it is Lecoq School... I was really, really furious against that. So, no, we had a lot of... we fight quite a lot, yes. But we stayed friends.

The principle I remember most in studying with you was always to have pleasure in what you do. Is that something that's your philosophy, or Lecoq's?

No, Lecoq was not pleasure, he was Protestant... Pleasure is not specialty of Protestant! No, no. Pleasure?  Bah... the engine of an actor is pleasure. The engine of everybody who stands up is pleasure. If you lose your pleasure, you're depressed and you could commit suicide... So you ask, You're so deep, you discovered pleasure? (Laughs) No, I didn't discover anything. It's not deep at all... it's life! 

Jacques Lecoq

Could talk a little bit about the use of the insult in teaching?

First, it's not an insult. When what you did was a pile of shit, and we say, That is a shit, it means, You can't do anything with that... It doesn't mean, Ah, it's bad, we don't love you, you are outside, you are outcast. No! You are allowed to make a big shit every morning (laughs), but my job is to tell you, With that, we can't do anything; with that, never you will get a contract. 

If you stop having love — or having sympathique — because the student is bad, you, as a teacher, you are a piece of shit, because you choose between the good or the bad! And everyone is allowed to be bad.

For people who live in Paris, you can see on every street the little shit of a dog (laughs). In Paris, we have so many dogs who shit on the corner of the street, so when we say, You are a little shit of a dog, everyone understands better! And we say with a sort of humor, we don't say that in a nasty way. It's a good fun.

Have you ever been to Los Angeles?  

No.

Well, you're in for it, because there's a lot of shit!

Ah, ya-ya-ya!  (Laughs)  

What would you like to bring to the students you teach in LA?

It could be good if we have good fun; lots of clown. I come back from Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia], I was last week, it was fantastic but it was not clown, it was neutral mask and Greek tragedy and it was bouffon, but it was absolutely fantastique what we saw — and every day! So I hope we are going to discover the beauty of the clown, the beauty of the idiot who feels he is funny, but he is not. 

Is that your favorite thing to teach, clown?

Depends on who is the student. Sometimes we teach clown in Montreal... and sometimes it's not a piece of cake!

Do you feel there is any relationship between art (or acting) and spirituality?  Is there any way you feel connection to something greater when you do this work? 

When you do this work, we try to find something beautiful, and something beautiful is when exercise start and we have the feeling, Ah, for this five seconds we saw a miracle! So, if we are not looking for this moment... for something absolutely beautiful... you are not an artist, you are just a seller of theatre recipe. 

Who are your favorite clowns or comedians?  This guy? 


Yeah, of course. This one is fantastique. Because his humanité is fantastique. Because he was totally vacant... He had all the qualities to be great friend of Beckett. Normally, this one is top level of a human being. We see on the face — he's not a piece of shit! 

You and I spoke about The Marx Brothers once, and you mentioned something about the Jewish people having a special spirit. Do you think there is any relationship between people who've known suffering and an ability to be funny or create art?


I know just one thing... When we are in Spain, Italy or Czechoslovakia, we are more light than when we are in Denmark, Norway or Germany. Why, I do not know exactly... But it is true, to suffer so much gives more humor than to be the best son of God... You are half-Jew or total? 

Total.

Tonight we are going to eat with Sacha Baron Cohen.

He's amazing!

He is amazing, yeah-yeah-yeah! He doesn't stop!  He has Jew humor, too, eh?

Yeah.  How long ago was the last time you visited? 

He visited us a year ago, or something like that. 

Sacha Baron Cohen as the bouffon, Bruno.

When your students leave, do you miss them at all? Is it hard to see them come and go, or do you just keep moving? 

I am happy when they succeed — really happy, of course! People — you have to meet your life.  You have to live your fantasy!

Thank you for your time, Philippe. 

It was a great pleasure.

You know you really changed my life? 

Thank you. I change the life of people who want to change their life.  I don't change the life of a good German who wants to stay German. I change the life of people who accept to be tramp in the mind.


Philippe Gaulier teaches at Fixt Point (www.fixtpoint.com) in Los Angeles now through September 6.  Listen to a bit of Philippe himself here. For more information about Gaulier's year-round courses, visit www.ecolephilippegaulier.com.

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